First Florida, then Rome, then Brussels and now London

Heirs of Edmund Burke

For all its incoherence, the National Conservatism conference in London is indicative of a worrying direction of travel for the global right, argues Paul Demarty

A flutter of excitement rippled through the punditocracy last week, as details of speeches at the inaugural National Conservatism UK conference leaked out.

A copy of an existing series of such conferences - in Florida, Rome and Brussels so far - it gathered a rum old crew to denounce the general state of affairs in wider society. There were the cabinet ministers and the former cabinet ministers: Suella Braverman, Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg. There was the man who set the whole thing rolling: Yoram Hazony, the Israeli-American chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation. The Old Whig, Edmund Burke, it should be noted, is a hero of the right, being considered, especially in the USA, as the philosophical founder of modern conservatism, not least because of his writings attacking the 1789 great French revolution. There were intellectuals: the counter-jihadist and anti-woke bore, Douglas Murray; and ex-leftists Frank Furedi and Nina Power. There were the wonks: Matthew Goodwin and David Goodhart, whose whole careers as political scientists have consisted of telling politicians to actually cut immigration numbers rather than pretending to; Michael Anton, an American ghoul of the species, ‘west-coast Straussian’; Brexit bureaucrat David Frost; and innumerable others.

The headlines were, of course, dominated by the statements of ministers and MPs. A certain amount of pearl-clutching attended to Miriam Cates’s use of the phrases, “cultural Marxism” and “neo-Marxism”; both needed to be expurgated as part of an effort to improve the birth rate, and both - especially the ‘cultural’ variant - have been interpreted as essentially anti-Semitic dog whistles, for blaming present-day identity politics somewhat bizarrely on the largely Jewish intellectuals of the Frankfurt School.1 Suella Braverman argued that mass immigration was a threat to “national character”,2 although Braverman herself is evidence of the robustness of that “character”, showing that it is possible for a second-generation immigrant to meld seamlessly with the philistinism and narrow-mindedness of provincial little-Englanderism - indeed to become its most doughty champion. Jacob Rees-Mogg breezily admitted that voter ID laws were a bungled attempt at gerrymandering, apparently unaware of the peanut-throwing throng in the press gallery.

Beyond the headlines, though, it is worth thinking a little about what all this means. The first matter of note is that it is not long since the only British politician to attend the first of these little jollies - the MP, Daniel Kawczynski - was criticised discreetly for bringing the Tories into disrepute; this was in 2020 (the glory days of Boris Johnson, mind you). How things change … The fact that so many Tory grandees, including cabinet ministers, felt free to show up and tell us their interesting thoughts last week is a mile-marker on a road. It remains to be seen where the road leads, exactly, but the destination is unlikely to be pleasant for the left.


Then there is the question demanded by all this: what is national conservatism? On the basis of the speeches given, you would have to call it a hopelessly incoherent hodgepodge, with one rock-solid point of unity: visceral hatred of the left. Yet that appearance may be deceptive - a matter of failing to resist the lure of celebrity, and precisely packing the running order with stock Tories. There is something like a coherent intellectual-political project that you might call national conservatism, within which there are major disagreements about strategy (one could say the same about Marxism, for that matter).

It is perhaps easier to get a hold of by first of all zooming out: there is a cluster of ideologies emerging that are grouped together as ‘post-liberalism’. This amounts to the idea that - especially since the 1989-91 ‘end of history’ - a pervasive culture of liberal individualism has been dominant in the west, but has essentially run out of road. Successful political projects in the future must go beyond the deracinated anthropology of liberalism, proposing a stronger conception of the common good and deliberately using the state to build that consensus.

The question immediately arises: what common good? Just as immediately, we are returned a barrage of different answers. Post-liberals include Christian communitarian ‘socialists’ (John Milbank, Adrian Pabst, perhaps Alasdair MacIntyre, and the whole Blue Labour project); so-called reactionary feminists (Power, Mary Harrington, Louise Perry, all of whom were NatCon UK speakers); Catholic integralists (Adrian Vermeule, Patrick Deneen); the list goes on. It is worth noting, in passing, that there is a certain Marxisant current in the post-liberal milieu too, which is sometimes identified as ‘post-leftism’, which consists of people at least of leftwing origins, whose opposition to identitarianism goes to the point of adopting ‘conservative’ critiques of conventional leftwing policies like open borders, trans rights and the like.

It may be objected that this is an amalgam, but, in my defence, representatives of all these trends are happy to self-designate as post-liberal. They seem to enjoy being part of a wider political demimonde: and who are we to deny people the right to identify however they like?

National conservatism, then, is a strand within this tangled mess. Its advocates take socially conservative stances on gender roles and sexuality, and object to the neoliberal consensus in mainstream conservatism. But above all they focus their fire on the question of immigration, of which they want a great deal less. It is the job of nation-states to build up their own common good, which in turn means maintaining a coherent national culture, to which mass immigration is thought to represent a significant threat. The marquee names on this bill are Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and Donald Trump - but, as a representative ideologue, one could mention the former Fox News presenter, Tucker Carlson. More distantly, they inherit their main concerns from the American paleoconservatives of the 1980s and 90s, such as Pat Buchanan and Sam Francis. (Orbán looms largest, since he is increasingly an influence on the American NatCons, and indeed provided some material backing for the London conference via friendly think-tanks.)

In their account, a strong state is an indispensible tool for maintaining such a national culture. Yet the state is undermined from within by a “globalist” elite that prioritises the needs of high finance and happily hurls ordinary, horny-handed workers on the trash-heap of history, and justifies its existence by demonstrative acts of liberalisation, when it comes to sexuality, race relations and other ‘cultural’ issues.

At this point, it is necessary to do some accounting. We are not quite sure where the idea comes from that the Orbán government has strengthened the domestic working class. Though he originally rode to power more than 15 years ago by opportunistically denouncing a privatisation programme of the then-ruling social democrats (in origin the ruling official Communist Party of the cold war years), his government has liberalised the labour market to a near-comical degree, which did at least make Hungary an attractive outsourcing destination for German industrial capital. Trump, likewise, talked a good game at rescuing blue-collar Joe Sixpack types from the “American carnage”, but achieved nothing in that regard - his banner achievement on economic policy was merely a huge corporate tax cut that might even have embarrassed George W Bush. Carlson gives some token airtime to labour activists, but spun so as to pursue a ‘social’ agenda: thus, for example, an interview with Amazon organiser Chris Smalls, which he spent trying to start a bunfight between Smalls and ‘progressive’ congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez.


Thus, also, the strange incoherence of NatCon UK. Cates’s speech - besides its jeremiads about phantom ‘Marxists’ - amounted to a call for far greater state support for families, and denounced in passing the introduction of a two-child cap on child benefits. It was roughly representative of the far-right social democratic politics of national conservatism. She shared the podium, however, with David Frost, whose big idea was unleashing the free market, and the same could be said of Jacob Rees-Mogg and other ultra-Thatcherite Brexiteers of the same stamp. Both, if they are honest with themselves, despise the thought of subsidising the large families of the ‘workshy’.

In short, you could hardly form a political party out of the raw material on display here, even if the British constitution were kinder to smaller parties. Not, at least, one with a fully worked-out programme. They would have to focus on the things they agreed about: that is, the threat of “cultural Marxism”, of the “grooming” of children by “gender ideology”, of the mere idea that declining birth rates are regrettable (but not on any proactive policy to deal with it), which would immediately split them six ways to Sunday. Likewise foreign policy: hawkishness on the China front was happily indulged, but the Ukraine war was largely skirted - not least, we suspect, because Orbán’s regime is playing a tricky diplomatic game.3

There is, on the face of it, thus something pathetic about the whole endeavour. It is an attempt to build an international movement (always a paradoxical affair among nationalists!) purely on the basis of the hatred of a scapegoat, but a wholly abstract scapegoat. There are many different kinds of Marxism, of course, from that recognisable to Marx and Engels to state-backed Marxism-Leninism, to Trotskyism, communisation and identitarian subtypes like Marxist feminism and Black Marxism. The NatCons oppose something altogether different, which - with apologies to Miriam Cates - I would like to call ‘bogeyman Marxism’, a pervasive and indistinct threat that grows and shrinks to meet the polemical needs of the moment (the true red under the bed).

It offers a spurious urgency to the whole business, but really amounts to getting high on your own supply. The NatCons, and the wider anti-woke sphere, systematically deceive themselves about the nature of their opponents. Even when those opponents really do err - by advocating idiotic and irrationalist forms of identity politics - they see these developments as if in a fairground mirror. This goes even when they are happy to use Marxian or otherwise ‘left-coded’ arguments and jargon. Mary Harrington’s talk, for example, was peppered with buzzwords like “biopolitics” and “the politics of the body”,4 which we used to hear a lot from the very postmodernist academic left so scorned by the NatCons; and her interesting but extremely slippery book Feminism against progress relies in part on Engelsian arguments about the history of the family.5 Yet her central argument - that trans rights is, as her book puts it, an “emotive wedge issue” for a Bioshock-style post-human dystopia6 (first augured by nothing other than the contraceptive pill) is simply a conspiracy theory, taking a few wild statements from transhumanist academics to be representative of a whole movement she despises too intensely to see clearly.


It is only political movements that actually offer a meaningful and coherent threat to the existing order of capitalism that really need the instruments of political combat: discipline, programmatic unity and the like. These are tricks that bourgeois parties learned from the example of the workers’ movement, whether they like to admit it or not. National conservatism offers no such challenge: its ‘social democratic’ edge is no more likely to survive the ravages of global financial violence than were the programmes of François Mitterrand or François Hollande in France or Syriza in Greece, for example, and canniness on that point no doubt accounts for Orbán’s willingness to turn his people into an exploitable resource for larger neighbours.

In the wider post-liberal sphere, there is even some awareness of this problem; for a theologian like Milbank, or indeed some of the integralists, the foundation of the nation-state is merely an execrable corruption of the early modern period, and one hears occasional, half-joking proposals to revive the Holy Roman Empire or Habsburg Austro-Hungary. Milbank distanced himself from the conference (though his son, Sebastian, was one of the speakers); Pabst denounced it in advance in the New Statesman (the Staggers having become the home turf of the ‘post-liberal left’ in the British media)7. Yet he is a ferocious royalist, on the basis of the mystical and religious element in the whole machinery of monarchy, and thus is no less trapped in the same paradigm.

The apparent radicalism is therefore a sham. That is not to say the whole business is without its uses. The flipside to national conservatism having no need of a conventional political apparatus is, precisely, that it may achieve some kind of success without it. Capitalist rule demands legitimating ideology - hence the liberal and more recently identitarian fig leaves adopted by many western states and ideological institutions in the post-cold-war era. A transition away from such liberal apologetic structures has long been discernible, from relative global minnows like Orbán’s Hungary to big beasts like India under Narendra Modi, and Japan under Shinzo Abe and his successors.

The praxis of such things as the NatCon phenomenon is thus influence-peddling - thought leadership, as Californian business types would put it. For all the grand appeals to tradition, faith, patriotism and the common good, the mastery of the ideologues by capital ensures a basically transactional mode of operation. Rich rightwing political donors might happily support both ultra-libertarian outlets like the American Enterprise Institute and Adam Smith Institute, and paleocon nationalists at Claremont or the NatCon crowd. Peter Geoghegan usefully follows the money in an article for the London Review of Books8; but it is merely one example, and the rightwing media world, especially in the USA, is awash in dark money.

Leaders like Modi and Orbán are pragmatists: nationalists mostly in theory, globalists mostly in practice. Their vicious ideological commitments - Orbán’s overt racism, Modi’s pogroms against Muslims, Abe’s revisionism when it comes to the barbarism of the Japanese occupation in China and Korea - are, in the end, the mirror-image of liberal tokenism (girlboss feminism, minority representation on boards and in film casts). As material benefits to their intended constituencies, they amount to nothing. As symbolic points of unity between rulers and ruled, they do a job. And, while there is a logical equivalence here in the game of bourgeois politics, there is not a moral one - giving more Oscars to black actors does not hurt anyone, but the cost of Hindutva rule in India (to take one example) is paid by Muslims lynched for cow-rustling, among other ‘sacrificial animals’, varied to suit local - ‘national’ - tastes.

For the same reason, those ‘post-leftists’ who find a realignment with the nationalist right a more palatable option than alliance with the identitarians have taken the most hopeless possible course. The basic error of left-identitarianism, when you get past all the irrationalism and melodramatic flummery, is an old one - popular frontism. The demands of ‘intersectionality’ end up functioning the same way as those of the bourgeois parties of the 1930s people’s fronts - as a veto on revolutionary methods, since subordination to these vetoes is considered self-sabotage.

Rightly taking fright at the disastrous effects of this on the left’s fighting capacity, the post-leftists propose - as a remedy! - doing exactly the same thing but in alliance with the right, with those people at that conference: a few mildly interesting intellectuals, admittedly, amid an army of golems formed from the clay of pure ressentiment. Instead of accepting neoliberalism in return for gay rights, we will accept anti-immigrant rampages in return for … whatever the ‘globalists’ will permit, at the end of the day, or whatever advantages can be grabbed in mercantilist fashion on the short road to great-power war. At least Frank Furedi was honest enough with himself, in the end, to just go over wholesale to the other team.

NatCon UK is ominous, therefore, because it gives the lie to a certain whiggishness about recent advances in the liberty of the oppressed in western countries. Bourgeois liberalism is not to be faulted for ‘imposing’ its mores in contradiction to ‘common sense’, but its inability to make those mores stick, since their truth is more egalitarian than the system will bear.

These things go in cycles. A grim atmosphere indeed awaits all Marxists, real and imaginary, when the worm finally turns for good.

  1. www.miriamcates.org.uk/news/our-declining-birth-rate.↩︎

  2. www.youtube.com/watch?v=NS5nh1aD-qM.↩︎

  3. . The Hungarians have form here, leaping on the rather pathetic far-right pundit Rod Dreher - in self-imposed Hungarian exile from the US - when he leaked candid remarks by Orbán on the prospects for peace: www.thebulwark.com/how-rod-dreher-caused-an-international-scandal-in-eastern-europe.↩︎

  4. reactionaryfeminist.substack.com/p/disunited-posthuman-kingdom.↩︎

  5. . M Harrington Feminism against progress Corbridge 2023 (see especially chapter 2).↩︎

  6. op cit p161.↩︎

  7. www.newstatesman.com/quickfire/2023/05/national-conservatism-is-intellectual-dead-end.↩︎

  8. www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v45/n11/peter-geoghegan/short-cuts.↩︎